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Using Boundaries and Empathy to Deal with People’s Anger Effectively

No one wants to be the target of another person’s anger. But almost everyone has been there. It’s an intense experience, whether the anger seems justified or not. Do you know how to diffuse an angry person?  Do you know what words calm an angry person?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Anger closes off our connection in relationships

Knowing how to deal with angry people in life and at work is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence. These kinds of people skills build greater confidence in every relationship and situation! 

What if you knew how to respond to another’s anger in an effective way? I suspect that your life would be a little calmer and more relaxed. And better yet, what if you could defuse someone’s anger altogether? It can be done—using empathy.

Anger is a very misunderstood emotion. More often than not, we stuff it, run from it, or try to shut it down quickly—whether it’s someone else’s anger or our own. In the process, we miss out on the vital information that anger can convey. And corking someone else’s wrath is like trying to stop a full-blown tornado or put out a forest fire with a squirt gun.

The key to navigating another person’s anger is listening and acting on it before it gets out of control. Sometimes, hosing down the fire with empathy helps alleviate a lot of painful interactions. And when that anger gets too fierce, knowing how to set boundaries to contain it is imperative.

Where Does Anger Come From?

It often piggybacks on multiple frustrations and annoyances. Many times, the angry person is feeling hurt, sometimes powerless—and often they feel like their values are being disrespected or their sense of well-being is threatened. If they feel misunderstood, judged, or made wrong for being angry, their emotions tend to escalate. An angry person is not acting from their logical brain.

Related reading and helpful infographic: "How Anger Affects the Brain and Body"

Husband working on his iPad and in deep thought

Examples of Anger in Everyday Life

It can be helpful to translate an abstract concept into real life, so let’s take an example:

It’s Saturday, and the kids are outside playing. The husband is reading the news on his iPad. The wife nicely asks when he thinks he might fix the leaky faucet. He erupts into a rage, lobbing a tirade of accusations at his wife: she is always nagging, her expectations are too high, and she doesn’t appreciate how hard he works. The wife leaves the room hurt and confused. After all, she was just wondering.

Do you really think that the husband’s anger was about his wife’s question? Unlikely. Her question just lit the fuse of the dynamite that was already stashed within him.

In this scenario, the man’s anger had likely been building all week long. He spilled coffee on his shirt dashing out of the house Monday morning, which made him late for work. His boss kept him working late three times this week, and one of those nights he missed his son’s basketball game. Two people at work were on vacation, and although he was already overloaded, their tasks were delegated to him. And after working hard all week, a dozen tasks are waiting for him at home, competing with his legitimate need to relax. All before his wife asked about the faucet, and he blew up.

Related reading: "Why Do People Take Out Their Anger on Others—and What to Do About It!

Anger Management Begins with Self-Awareness

Let’s look at the build-up of the man’s emotions:

Spilled coffee – annoyance
Working late – added stress, time away from family, pressure, and a sense of powerlessness from multiple last-minute changes in his schedule
Missing his son’s game – disappointment and a sense of helplessness
Added workload – feelings of being overwhelmed, perhaps being undervalued
Inner conflict – need for rest colliding with family responsibilities

So, much of what the husband was spewing was not at all about his wife. It was his frustration toward his boss and the week’s pressures that he was taking out on her.

When we understand the why of emotion, it can help us cultivate compassion. However, to someone on the receiving end of anger, an outburst can seem dramatically disproportionate to the current event. The hook of every interaction and where we get stuck is that we personalize the person’s behavior!

The first step in any emotional tango, especially with anger, is to depersonalize the other person’s words and actions. They rarely have anything to do with us as illustrated by the example above.

Another vital action is to acknowledge the emotion and help the person feel understood. (This is true for your anger, too). Studies show that when an emotion is recognized and identified, it begins to soften and dissipate.

For example, using the scenario above, the wife could say to her husband: “Wow, you must be feeling a ton of pressure to erupt like that over a leaky faucet! Are you worried about money?”

However, it’s common for us to get defensive or react to someone else’s intense emotions. Frequently, we don’t even want to deal with another person's feelings. And even if we desire to be there for the angry person, often we don’t know how to respond.

It can be especially difficult when a person is feeling unsafe when volatile emotions erupt. Or we’re too hurt and filled with our own emotions to keep our composure.

Therefore, checking in with yourself is essential, too. It’s vital that you know what you’re feeling and whether you can navigate someone else’s strong emotions at that moment. To respond lovingly and firmly to someone who has just used you for target practice requires self-awareness and equanimity. Self-restraint doesn't just happen; It takes practice. And replacing judgment with curiosity is critical and not always easy in the heat of the moment.

Whether at work, at home, or interacting socially, when you’re facing anger from another person, you can use a few quick check-ins to get some insight about what to do next.

Related reading: "The Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, Compassionate."

Husband and wife budgeting together

Emotional Awareness: Check in with Yourself

Ask yourself:

  • “Am I upset or feeling overwhelmed with the situation?” If so, take care of yourself and self-calm. The goal when navigating another person’s strong emotions is to be an anchor—first for yourself and then if possible for the other person, who may be having difficulty with their own emotions too. Their angry feelings will dissipate if you can be an accurate mirror for them to see themselves more clearly and identify what they need. But if you’re too full of your own emotions or if you’re dreading what’s coming out of their mouth next, you will rarely be supportive of them.

  • “Am I feeling grounded enough in myself to be able to hold a safe space for this person’s emotions?” If not, center in your heart before responding. Centering means practicing being present to yourself and honoring your own truth. You’ll get better at it the more you focus on it. Centering can be a quick six-second reconnect with yourself, like a refreshing sip of tea or a dive into a cool lake. Centering can also take the form of a more extended break to regroup. And you can practice regular centering through meditation, yoga, or mindfulness.

  • “Can I be present to this person?” If you’re upset or afraid of their emotional outburst, it may not be a time to take on more. If you’re struggling, don’t try to help someone else. It would be like jumping into a lake to save a drowning person when you’re exhausted or don’t know how to swim. Your first responsibility is to feel secure and connected to yourself, and then from a grounded place extend comfort and empathy to the other person. And yes, set a limit for their behavior if you need to—even if they don’t like your setting a boundary.

  • “Can I be present to the person while also surfing my own feelings?” If not, your responses will lack authenticity, and you may end up creating more misunderstanding. The result is an unpleasant tango without resolution. However, if you can indeed dance with awareness of your own feelings and also be present to the other person, that person is fortunate to have you there!

Of course, it’s not your job to take on another person’s anger, to be a target of their angst, or to solve their problems.

However, if you decide to be present to their anger, below are some possible responses. When it’s necessary to set a boundary for the strong emotions of someone else, these responses help them feel heard while also letting them know you care. Yet there’s still room for you to take care of yourself.

To be clear, I’m assuming that you have a relationship with this person—for example, that this person is your friend, mother-in-law, spouse, child, co-worker, manager, sibling, etc. These responses would not fit for someone you hardly know, like a stranger on a bus, or in a situation when it’s inappropriate to be spilling emotions (e.g., your ex-spouse indulging in a rant when you run into them unexpectedly).

And these are just examples. Only use these responses if they‘re true for you. The goal is to find a response that matches your natural style and personality. As you go through the sample responses below, think about what would be authentic for you to say.

The more authentic and sincere your response is, the more effective calming anger will be.
Employee overwhelmed by manager's frustration and anger

Setting boundaries for anger when you need to take care of yourself.

  • “I get that you’re angry. Please come talk to me when you can speak without yelling.”
  • “I want to hear what you have to say, but I can’t right now. I’m feeling too rushed, and I want to give you my full attention. Can we circle back later?”
  • “Wow! We’re really upset with each other! Let’s both calm down before we discuss anything further.”
  •  “Sounds like you’re really hurting about something to be this upset! I’d like to talk when you’re calmer.”
  • “I’d like to hear why you’re so upset, but my attention is divided because I have a lot on my mind. What’s a time later we can reconnect?”
  • “I’m not willing to be yelled at. I do want to understand your viewpoint. I just need to calm myself so I can truly hear you.”
  • “I care about you. It’s hard to listen when you raise your voice. When you can talk about what’s upsetting you without blaming, I’m here for you.”
  • “You look angry. Are you? Have I hurt you in some way?”

Notice that all of the above responses have something in common: They all depend on what’s going on for YOU!

To learn to set more effective boundaries in different relationships, try our Healthy Boundaries, Happy Life 2-week online course.

Yes, help me set better boundaries

Your responses will depend on the person and your relationship with them. Find a way to communicate that is genuine for you. Practice ways that fit your personality without giving yourself up in the process of trying to be present to someone else’s pain.

A woman upset and needing empathy

Tailor Your Response to Anger for Each Unique Situation

Each situation is somewhat unique, depending on what you’re feeling, how much time you have available, how calm you are, whether you’re in a hurry, and whether you even want to be a part of this person’s emotional experience.

Your response will also depend on the quality of your relationship, its history, and whether this type of emotional encounter is rare or a chronic pattern. You can write your own script that matches your truth and also is respectful to the other person.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to throw a life preserver to someone in need. However, being a daily bucket for another person’s frustration, anger, or rage and a target of blame degrades the fabric of a relationship and can result in losing yourself. 

If you’ve determined that it’s not the right time to field a fastball from an upset person, let them know what you feel and where you’re at in the relationship. There are many reasons you need to set a boundary. The other person’s behavior may be disrespectful or hurtful to you. You may need to take care of yourself—perhaps you need to calm yourself before any further interaction.

Older man self-calming himself Or you may just be feeling unprepared and need to regroup. It’s always okay to take care of yourself—no justification is needed! You  can’t help anyone if you’re emotionally underwater yourself. So if you're feeling yourself getting overwhelmed or upset, it's not time to be present to someone else.

Self-love: a prerequisite to being loving to others

When we are prepared, we’re more likely to successfully draw boundaries that will be respected. When we hold others accountable to be their best self, our relationships grow and thrive.

Our responses train the other person in how to act and treat us. What are you tolerating that you need to set a healthier boundary for?

Be true to yourself first. From that solid place, communicate authentically. Then, relationships create healthy connections and build a strong foundation for everyone to thrive. 

Hopefully, you’re beginning to understand how important it is to pay attention to yourself in order to be successful with others.

Now, let's dive into handling another person's anger.

What NOT to Say to an Angry Person!

  • "Calm down!"
  • “You're making too big of a deal about this."
  • “Your anger isn't helping matters."
  • "Why don't you grow up!"
  • "Stop blowing this out of proportion."
  • "Just deal!"
  • "I'm so sick of your anger!"

Imagine if someone said any of these comments to you when you were upset. Would you appreciate it? Would they make you feel understood? Probably not. These responses will typically enrage the other person more. These kinds of reactions are like throwing gasoline on a fire. Emotions will usually escalate. The goal is to calm the other person by helping them feel heard.

Now that you know what not to say, let's look at some effective responses, particularly using empathy.

What to Say to an Angry Person While Giving Empathy

Empathy is vital, but it can only be authentic when you stay open, connected, and responsive to the other person’s viewpoint and experience. Compassion and empathy help them calm down and get back to their heart. The more accurately you reflect the tone and intensity of their emotion, the more the other person will feel understood. To weave an effective response, you must listen with both your head and your heart. Using words that accurately describe feelings can help communicate that you understand.

Empathetic Starters that Show You Care:

  • “It sounds like you’re feeling . . .”
  • “I can’t imagine how that must have made you feel.”
  • "I can see how you might feel that way."
  • "Wow, you're really upset!"
  • "I can only imagine how disheartening that must have felt."
  • "That sounds maddening!"
  • "You have a right to your anger. What are you most upset about?"
  • "How can I best support you?”

[Choose a word from the list below that accurately describes the person's strong emotions when responding.]

The many faces of anger:

  • frustrated
  • peeved
  • disturbed
  • riled
  • angry
  • agitated
  • aggravated
  • infuriated
  • betrayed
  • trapped
  • furious
  • upset
  • exasperated
  • outraged

Notice that the levels of intensity in this list range from a slight frustration all the way to rage. Typically, the more precisely you identify and reflect someone else’s emotions, the faster they slow their breathing, release their intensity, and calm down. When someone feels heard, they relax. When they think we “get” them, they know they’re not alone, and this experience offers enormous support and provides a container for them to regain their poise. It’s like an embrace from the inside out. 

Related articles: “What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?” and "How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"

For a step-by-step process, check out our workbook: "Real Empathy, Real Solutions.

Seize the calm! Learn empathy.

To learn more about how to overcome anger issues before they disrupt your life and relationships or to discover more about emotional fitness skills, email support@heartmanity.com.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in How to Build Empathy

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